Philippine prosecutors on Monday filed environmental crime charges against nine Chinese fishermen arrested in disputed South China Sea waters, despite Beijing’s warning of a dire effect on relations.
The court case is the latest step in a simmering dispute between the neighbors in the strategically important South China Sea (West Philippine Sea to Manila), which is home to key shipping lanes and is believed to harbor vast oil and gas reserves.
Prosecutor Allan Ross Rodriguez told Agence France-Presse that the fishermen were charged with violating laws against poaching and catching protected species after they were allegedly caught with a huge haul of sea turtles—a protected species— on their boat.
The men, who were arrested last week when Filipino police seized their vessel, could face up to 20 years in prison and be hit with large fines if convicted, Rodriguez said.
“It is clear—there was a fishing vessel, Chinese fishermen, a catch of sea turtles,” he noted.
The court is expected to summon the fishermen to enter a plea within 10 days, Rodriguez said, with bail set at P70,000 ($1,570) per defendant.
Police seized the Chinese-flagged vessel and detained its 11 crew last week off the disputed Half Moon Shoal, 111 kilometers (60 nautical miles) west of Palawan, the most westerly island in the Philippines.
Two crew were later found to be minors and will not face charges, the Philippine foreign department said.
Filipino police said they found a huge haul of hundreds of sea turtles on board the 15-tonne vessel, many of them already dead.